Gillian Martin Sorensen, Under-Secretary-General, United Nations
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Senior Producer: This is Common Ground, a program on world
affairs and the people who shape events. With the battles of 1996 behind us and a new Secretary
General, the United Nations hopes for a fresh start this year.
GILLIAN MARTIN SORENSEN: We are committed to the efforts for reform and renewal. We know
that we must succeed.
DAVIDSON: But with the United States still a billion and a half dollars behind in its
dues, the UN’s troubles won’t be over any time soon.
SORENSEN: This is a treaty obligation, a legal obligation and for the United States to
renege on this matter is a very serious thing.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray
It hasn’t been an easy period for employees at UN headquarters in New York City. Besides its host
country owing dues stretching back ten years, the UN was regularly vilified during the American
presidential campaign. And then of course, came the ugly battle over selection of the Secretary
General. The U.S. stood alone in its opposition to Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali, but prevailed in
ousting the Egyptian diplomat. Senate Foreign Relation Committee chairman Jesse Helms, a regular
opponent of the United Nations, last month extended a warm greeting to new Secretary General Kofi
Annan but that doesn’t guarantee his or other Congressional support for the UN or payment of the
U.S. debt. Gillian Martin Sorensen, an American, is an Under-Secretary-General at the United
Nations, where employees are perplexed by American attitudes.
GILLIAN MARTIN SORENSEN: Some in the United Nations are dismayed at the kind of UN
bashing that they hear sometimes from Americans, particularly from some members of Congress. They
find that hard to understand from a country, from the United States, which has historically held
a prominent and leading position. In fact, the U.S. was the prime mover in the creation of the
UN. We were the prime drafter of the UN charter. We helped and led in setting up the structure
and the financial arrangements for the United Nations. And we have a great interest in its
success. We enjoy the benefits, and by working with and through the UN, we have a way of sharing
the risk, the cost, the burden of moving this world forward. And even our best friends and allies
hope that things will take a better turn, that when the new Congress comes in in January that
members of Congress will take a fresh look at the United Nations. And on the matter of dues, the
unpaid United States dues that go back over a decade, that they will understand that this is a
treaty obligation, a legal obligation. And for the United States to renege on this matter is a
very serious thing and this refusal to pay our dues over ten years time has set a precedent, a
negative precedent, for other countries. And for a country like the United States that normally
has been the role model for the world, most people think is out of character and not right. Now
if critics want to renegotiate the terms or to open the discussion on what the dues should be,
that can be done, but that’s a separate question.
DAVIDSON: You were the head of the UN 50th anniversary celebration last year and a lot of
the commentators in this country were questioning the credibility of the institution. Do you feel
that the anniversary throughout that year was able to help restore some of the United Nations
SORENSEN: I really do. And it was an important opportunity, a historic opportunity, not
just as critics said to have a birthday party; it was much more than that. Around the world and
throughout the year, individuals, governments, our political leaders, educators, religious
leaders and citizens took part in efforts to deepen this discussion, to reaffirm their
commitment, to analyze among themselves how we could do more and do better, to recognize that we
are connected as human beings on this earth and that the United Nations exists as an instrument
for us to reach toward a world where peace and justice and democracy thrive.
We did take a moment to point out some of the successes and to remember that over these five
decades, that the UN has indeed changed lives and saved lives, has assisted millions upon
millions of refugees—indeed, this year only, 22 million refugees, has inoculated children
against all the childhood diseases, has fed the hungry, has helped to preserve the environment,
has set the norms and standards around the world for human rights and served as monitor on human
rights, has worked in the area of family planning for countries that need and request that
support and has worked in the area of development and housing. But development particularly,
meaning clean water and access to the basic needs of life that every human being deserves. And
then finally of course in the area of peace keeping, which is 20% of the United Nations effort.
There have been a number of successes: conflicts contained, wars averted, and situations given
the kind of time and space needed to find resolution. That’s difficult and challenging work
because no crisis comes to the United Nations at an easy stage. They arrive at the point where
the parties involved, or the neighbors involved cannot resolve it. So that means that UN is
always given the most difficult problems.
And finally, I might point to one little noticed, but very interesting success, and that is the
area that we refer to as democratization. The efforts to support free and fair elections around
the world, to move countries toward democracy, and there are many countries asking now for that
support and reaching, moving toward their own first free elections and that’s great.
So in the course of the anniversary year, the 50th last year, the participation took many forms.
And then there was, of course, the historic summit gathering in New York City in October of 1995
where the leaders of the world gathered and virtually every country was represented at the
highest level. And they traveled thousands of miles to speak on behalf of themselves and their
countries and say, we care, we want this institution not only to survive but to thrive. We are
committed to the efforts for reform and renewal, but we know that we must succeed. And President
Clinton said as much and was there of course as the host country President, recommitting to the
United Nations. All countries have options. They can go it alone, they can work in regional
groups, but they also have the option of working together in the one universal organization.
DAVIDSON: President Clinton didn’t say too much at this year’s start of the General
Assembly. Do you feel that was mainly for political reasons?
SORENSEN: Well, his special emphasis at this point was with reference to the
comprehensive test ban treaty.
DAVIDSON: Which he signed at that point.
SORENSEN: Indeed, yes, and that was very important. It had been long awaited, it’s a big
step forward and that was a very dramatic moment. I regret that the United Nations has become a
sort of political football because I think most thoughtful leaders at every level of our society
understand that America has a historic leadership role. We have self-interest in seeing that the
United Nations succeeds, and even this great and powerful country couldn’t possibly imagine that
we could go it alone in every instance because we have to understand that everything crosses
borders without passports. Disease, pollution, nuclear fallout, traffic in arms and drugs and
terrorism. And there’s no way to address those issues but jointly as a common effort with other
countries. And the UN has done much to address those kinds of issues as well as the universal
concerns for such things as human rights and population growth, and environmental degradation and
such. And our President and our leaders in Congress do by and large recognize that. There are
discussions and some criticisms on how those are done, on whether the dollars are well spent and
those criticisms are welcome and heard, but we think that constructive critics have much to
contribute to that and the UN is listening and moving forward.
DAVIDSON: I’m sure you’re familiar with an article that U.S. Senator Jesse Helms recently
wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the UN is being transformed from an institution of
sovereign nations into a quasi-sovereign entity in itself. And he said that the national elites
running the UN look at the idea of the nation-state with disdain.
SORENSEN: I respectfully and absolutely disagree with Senator Helm’s comments in that
regard. The United Nations is not, and never could be, a world government. It is an organization
of governments. An organization of sovereign states. And the UN respects that. The UN itself has
no powers, no independent powers, no independent means or income. It does its work with the means
and resources given to it by the members. It reflects the will of the member states, and of
course the United States is a leading member. We’re a powerful member with a strong voice and a
large mission to the UN with diplomats on every committee. And we are certainly a member of
Security Council with the power of veto. So I think Senator Helms misunderstands the way UN
works. He may not recognize that in the UN Secretariat there are many Americans among the other
international civil servants, and he may misstate the purpose and the form and function of the
UN. We wish he would come more often. We’d like to talk with him directly and to help him better
understand the circumstances at the UN.
DAVIDSON: So you believe if he came to visit, he might change his view that the United
Nations now would like to believe it has superseded the nation state?
SORENSEN: Well, the interesting thing is that Senator Helms actually did come to visit a
few months back. He brought his grandchildren to take the UN tour. And we were very surprised to
see him. He arrived without notice and we hurried to make sure that he had an excellent tour and
briefing which I found a welcome opportunity. But, there is no need to fear for our sovereignty.
There is no way that the United Nations could impinge or trample upon our own sovereignty. It
does not work that way and people who say such things do not understand how the United Nations
DAVIDSON: Well I’m real intrigued by the fact that Senator Helms brought his
grandchildren to the United Nations. Did anyone learn why he wanted to bring grandchildren to the
SORENSEN: I have to assume he did as many parents and grandparents do, he wanted his
grandchildren to see where the world headquarters was, to learn a bit about why the organization
existed, how it came out of the tragedies of World War II, how the U.S. took the lead in the
creation of it and how we are making efforts in common cause with all the nations on earth to
make a better world. That’s a motive that many people have and the UN receives close to a million
visitors a year from all parts of the world.
DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground, a program on world affairs sponsored
by the Stanley Foundation. My guest is Gillian Martin Sorensen, an Under-Secretary-General at the
United Nations. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. At the end
of the broadcast I’ll give you details on how to order. Common Ground is a service of the
Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of
programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
At the start of the 51st session of the General Assembly this past September, the president of
the General Assembly, Razali Ismail from Malaysia said the session begins amidst criticism of the
UN’s inability to respond adequately to international crises. In situations where the UN has not
been able to respond adequately, what has held the organization up in your opinion?
SORENSEN: Well, let me say again, the United Nations is a reflection of the will of its
member states. And when that will is clear and focused and coherent and consistent, the UN can do
anything. But when the member states themselves are undecided, when they delay, when they dither,
when they debate among themselves, when they are unable to come to grips with certain crises and
decide what steps, what action they wish to take, the UN cannot, on its own, just dive into these
things. It responds to the mandates of the Security Council and of the United Nations. So it is
for those reasons that the UN has sometimes been hampered or delayed or inhibited from doing what
officials in the UN Secretariat believe would be the right steps to take. Further, the UN, as I
said earlier, has no independent resources. It must do its work with the resources, both human
and financial, given to it by the member states. And when the UN issues a mandate and says we
wish you to go into this crisis, it must follow up with the resources to succeed. And I think
some of the situations that have not succeeded as well have been because the UN was understaffed,
underfunded, underesourced. Any local police commissioner knows, for instance, that the worst
thing he can do in a situation of crisis, is to send too few officers. That’s a fundamental. And
there have been some instances in world crises where the UN has had too few peace keeping
soldiers. Those soldiers offered, that is volunteered, from member states, to do the job as well
as it should be done.
DAVIDSON: There are periodic discussions about the United Nations having, and I don’t
know if I have the phrase exactly correct, a standing army of sorts. If the member states were to
decide to have a standing army, who would then tell that standing army when to go off and respond
to a crises? Could it be up to the Secretary General or would it have to be a vote of the
SORENSEN: First let me speak clearly. There is no UN army, there is no standing army. The
UN troops are made up of soldiers contributed from member states for temporary service as UN
peacekeepers. Those soldiers, I should add, wear their own national uniforms with a small UN blue
patch on their soldier and for purposes of safety and identification they wear the UN blue helmet
or blue beret. But there has been a discussion lately led by the Canadians and the Dutch among
others, to have at the ready what they call rapid response forces. Those would be forces who
would remain with their national armies, but would be trained up to the highest standard and
ready on very short notice to move into a crisis at the request of the UN Security Council where,
once again, the US is a permanent member with veto. That would allow the United Nations to move
quickly. We know that some of the worst situations have arisen because the UN, as I said before,
has no standing army and must put together an army of troops to respond and those delays, which
can stretch into some months, have allowed some tragic situations to ensue. The rapid response
troops could move quickly for short term. They would bridge the month or two until national
troops could move in for a longer term of service and those would be rapid response forces that
would respond at the request of Security Council to emergency situations.
DAVIDSON: So even that would require a Security Council resolution?
SORENSEN: Absolutely, absolutely. The UN cannot and does not move on its own. There is of
course a Department of Peacekeeping with a small in-house staff, with representatives from many
nations including the United States, that watch and analyze and respond and consider the crises
around the world and watch those with great care. They give advice, but they can’t simply act on
their own without support of Security Council.
DAVIDSON: One of the charges regularly brought up during this political season in the
United States is that U.S. troops are not under U.S. command. How are peace keeping operations
put together and exactly what is the command structure?
SORENSEN: Let me state first that U.S. troops have never exceeded more than 5% of UN
peace keeping operations at any given time. Our country, that is the United States, has usually
chosen to help in other ways, very important ways I should say, with logistical support,
technical support, communications equipment and transport and that is very much needed. That’s a
very positive way for the U.S. to help in peacekeeping efforts. But in very recent years, the
U.S. has decided in certain operations where our own services and our own commander-in-chief
consider that it’s in our interest to have some U.S. soldiers there, those could be under
temporary operational leadership of a foreign commander, but a commander who is part of the UN
peacekeeping effort with communications to Americans in headquarters and trained to our standard.
That, I might add, is nothing new. Americans have occasionally served under foreign commanders
since the American Revolution when American troops served under General Lafayette. And in
practically every war since, including World War II, when American troops served under
operational command of Field Marshall Montgomery and other foreign commanders. Our
commander-in-chief is always the President of the United States and they would never be serving
in an operation that was not deemed to be in the U.S. interest.
Most countries of the world consider a term of UN service to be a matter of honor and prestige
and they welcome the opportunity to join UN peacekeepers and indeed most career officers around
the world know that it is essential to have a term of UN service on their own career ladder. We
hope that American soldiers will understand that this is part of our global and historic
leadership role, that they are doing a duty that is honorable and important. And I’ve talked to a
few American soldiers who have come back from service in Haiti and service in Macedonia and they
have found it to be a fascinating experience, an important and positive experience. Not easy, but
very challenging and very good and they have come back with a much deeper appreciation for the
role of UN peace keepers and the joint efforts that peace keeping soldiers made, U.S. soldiers
among many others. And again let me state that the U.S. soldiers are in numbers few. The
Canadians, the British, the Irish, the Ghanians, the Indians, the Pakistanis, even the Figians
from the Island of Figi contribute more soldiers than the United States does. But still,
symbolically it has been very important and very much appreciated that there have been some U.S.
soldiers among them.
DAVIDSON: And they are still under the command of the U.S. commander-in-chief ultimately?
SORENSEN: Ultimately, yes.
DAVIDSON: On a completely different note, the United Nations has many agencies and
programs working to advance the status of women. Yet in terms of advancing women within the
organization, it doesn’t quite meet standards set by many other institutions. I believe it was
last year the UN set a goal to fill 25% of its top executive positions with women, but I don’t
believe that goal has yet been reached, has it?
SORENSEN: That is a goal and a target. We’re moving in the right direction. It has been
stated in many ways over the years that the UN is committed to the advancement of women, to the
equal opportunity for women, and of course for girls I might add, for young girls around the
world. The UN has now an excellent plan in place with goals and time tables for the advancement
of women, and you might note that I’m here. I’m a woman, I work in the UN and for the Secretary
General and have had the welcome opportunity to see some other very fine women colleagues moving
up and doing good work both in the UN Secretariat and around the world. We value that. We respect
that. We take note of that. And we are hoping to see more UN women in the senior ranks in the
next years to come.
DAVIDSON: Does the great mix of cultures at the United Nations and from some societies
where women have not achieved the advances of women in the United States and other countries,
does that make it more difficult to achieve those goals?
SORENSEN: Yes it does. And that reflects the reality that diplomacy was traditionally a
man’s world. That’s the historic reality, but it reflects another daily reality and that is one
factor in diplomacy requires that people be able to move, to travel on short notice, to do tours
of duty overseas, and frankly that falls a bit harder on women than it does on men. There are
many countries too where the foreign service has not welcomed women and I know that approximately
60% of the missions to the UN in New York have no women diplomats. It’s a reflection of their own
culture and history and background. And so when countries are asked to put forward candidates for
jobs in the UN Secretariat, there are fewer women. Now when those jobs open up, the UN
Secretariat is specifically asking for women candidates and reaching further to find good and
qualified and experienced women as nominees for those posts. And reaching deeper and farther to
find those women.
DAVIDSON: Do you know offhand what percentage of the top diplomatic positions at the UN
are held by women?
SORENSEN: Yes I do. Of the 185 ambassadors to the United Nations representing every
country on earth, there are today just seven women. And that number is the maximum that we have
DAVIDSON: Seven out of 185?
SORENSEN: Yes. For some reason it has gone up to that number and then dropped and it has
reached that number again.
DAVIDSON: And whether it will break that glass ceiling is…
SORENSEN: Yes, it is a glass ceiling. And I did take note last year when the presidents
and prime ministers gathered, again of all the world, we had just six women prime ministers and
presidents out of the total.
DAVIDSON: My guest has been Gillian Martin Sorensen, an American and
Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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